Last year, 420,829 firearms were bought through licensed gun dealers in the state. That’s a 73 percent increase over 2006. Leading the list were pistols (175,717), followed by rifles (135,495). According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, central Virginians packed more heat than anyone else, followed closely by Northern Virginians.

And yet, as more firearms are sold, the crime rate has continued to drop. From 2006 to 2011, the number violent crimes committed with handguns fell from 4,040 to 3,154, about 25 percent, the newspaper reported.

Is there a correlation between increased gun sales and decreasing crime?

Indeed, some believe that hardened criminals are less likely to threaten victims if they know there’s a chance they could end up looking down the barrel of a 9 mm. Glock, or perhaps something that fits more easily into a lady’s handbag, such as a Ruger LCP 380 Ultra Compact Pistol. And by some accounts, women as well as men are flocking to training courses and firing ranges operated by gun stores.

At first glance, “the data is pretty overwhelming,” Thomas R. Baker, a criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, told the Richmond newspaper.

When you take a longer view, however, this thinking starts to fall apart. According to FBI reports, violent crime has been on a fairly steady downward trend since the early 1990s – much earlier than 2006, when Virginians started buying guns like crazy. The Economist magazine says the violent crime rate is at its lowest in 40 years and that the murder rate is less than it was a half a century ago.

It’s anyone’s guess why crime has continually dropped. Theories include demographic shifts resulting in fewer of the younger, inner-city men who tend to be involved in violent crime. Better community-based police work could be a cause. Some even say it’s because of large numbers of abortions by low-income women.

Among the law-abiding, gun proponents commonly suggest that one reason for the gun fad has been the fear that President Obama would crack down on gun sales. If so, it hasn’t happened yet. Some gun buyers may have worried that the recession would bring about more crime, but history shows that there was more violence in the Roaring 1920s than the Depression-racked 1930s. Mass media attention to rare shooting sprees such as those that occurred at Virginia Tech and at a movie theater in Colorado may have led others to want to be prepared in case it happened to them.

My view? Virginians are packing heat with gusto for the wrong reasons. They and their gun sellers are riding a wave of irrational fear that was vigorously promoted by socially conservative politicians in the 2010 and 2012 elections. As for Obama, any link between a desire for personal, deadly firepower and the election of the country’s first African American president raises some rather ugly questions.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.